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Can we make it at the Met in 50 milliseconds?

So first impressions are lasting. That is certainly the research evidence about websites published by Carleton University of Ottawa, Canada. A 50-millisecond glance and users reach a judgment they are reluctant to give up, even after spending more time on the website.

Before any initial evaluation would be possible, the mind has registered the eye's reaction - for good or bad. Illustrious bodies such as the BBC, CNN and the British Computer Society have sat up and are taking notice of the findings of a highly respected team.

Of course, college web designers will sit up and take note. But the question arising in my mind is: what other snap decisions about Glasgow Metropolitan College are given a thumbs up or thumbs down in less than the blink of an eye?

Would the college pass the 50-millisecond test? Its website might. It is clean and uncluttered and the initial impression created in that vital 50 milliseconds is good. Hours of effort has gone into ensuring early impressions are favourable, for the designers know that judgments are being formed almost as quickly as the eye can take in information.

But am I as sure that all other messages registered through the eye are as positive? Over recent weeks, I have kept thinking about the 50-millisecond test. Snap judgments will be made on marketing materials within the first seconds. Students, on the first glance at a newspaper advertisement or prospectus, will subconsciously take in enough to form a view as to whether the college or the course is "cool", or the prospectus is from what I might call a quality provider. Somewhere near you, I console myself, another principal is also facing the 50-millisecond test.

Like all of Scotland's Colleges, the Met has been making progress over recent years in creating a welcoming atmosphere. Good design has improved entrance foyers and trained staff greet the visitor. After all, he or she might be a potential client.

Often the first few minutes are spent with one particular individual. There is no more than a brief moment to create a good impression. What the enquirer at the reception desk wants to hear is not "have a good day", but where to go, or who will help. A snap decision might be made on first impressions, and a potentially valuable contact could be lost in that moment.

What Professor Gitte Lindgaard said about websites is equally true about colleges: "Unless the first impression is favourable, visitors will be out of your site before they even know that you might be offering more than your competitors."

One thing that makes a deep impression on me is the pride staff at all levels have in student achievement. I share that pride in every student who does "Make it at the Met". Is it evident before the first blink of an eye? No principal would dare fail that test. We have honoured our first batch of graduates in two ceremonies at Glasgow's Royal Concert Hall. The sense of pride in their achievements was palpable. I hope, in the first 50 milliseconds, every guest and every graduate grasped the immense pride the Met has in their success.

But do we always pass the test? What might the passenger on the 8.15am out of Queen Street station think as he glances over a fellow passenger's shoulder at a morning newspaper headline: "Colleges in the red despite cash boost"? Or a newsflash about industrial relations in a college?

Those headlines might drive away a potential client as much as a slow to load, visually offensive website. College managements and the Association of Scotland's Colleges are working hard to avoid those kinds of negative headlines; and they need to keep working to avoid negative publicity.

No matter how balanced the report under that headline, we have failed the 50-millisecond test. In those first vital seconds when the eye caught that unwelcome headline, the mind stored what it will be slow to lose. Years of effort, thousands of success stories and reports to prove it, and in a 50-millisecond glance, all of it could be undermined.


Tom Wilson is principal of Glasgow Metropolitan College.

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